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Native American Chef teaches students how to cook

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Sioux Chef Shawn Sherman visited the Mission Valley last week to teach students how to cook Native American style food the old way.

“This is what my grandparents ate,” he said.

Students from Ronan, St. Ignatius, Missoula, Bozeman and Kicking Horse Job Corps gathered in the kitchens at Ronan High School to learn about Native American cooking as part of a recently developed curriculum that is being noticed nationally.

The project started when Ronan Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Katie Umbriaco was looking for a lesson plan to help implement Indian Education for All, which is a state policy, into her classroom. 

“There were resources that connected Indian Ed. with everything except Family and Consumer Sciences,” she said. 

So – she decided to create a lesson.

“It’s the perfect match: food and culture,” she said.

Montana Office of Public Instruction helped develop and publish those lesson plans into 38-units that include tribal content knowledge, Montana State Standards and Common Core Standards. Sarah Pierce is an Indian Education Specialist with the Montana Office of Public Instruction. She attended the cooking class and explained the cultural diversity within the lessons.

“It shows that every tribe is unique with tradition and beliefs,” she said. “ … Every Indian isn’t the same. It’s like here in this district where there is a difference between the Salish and the Kootenai.”

Indian Education for All provided funding for the project including bringing a chef into the school and inviting other schools across Montana to attend the two-day event. The group invited Chef Sherman to implement a lesson by teaching the students to cook Native American cuisine.

“Chef Sherman is making huge headlines with what he is doing with Native food,” Pierce said. “He isn’t the only one, but he has worked in Montana, and he has a connection with (the) Crow, so we chose him.”

On Friday afternoon, Chef Sherman stood in front of a room full of students and began chopping a bright orange squash into cubes. He was demonstrating how to make a Three Sister Salad. The traditional dish is centuries old and contains squash, beans and corn. Sherman also layered the dish with chopped chard, toasted sunflower seeds and a spoonful of pureed grapes. 

“I like the food to taste like what it is, so I keep it simple,” he said to the students. “The key to Native cuisine is patience: 

waiting for food to come into season and waiting for it to cook.” 

He explained that he removed the European influence from his food, which includes dairy, flour and processed sugar. 

“All the health problems we have are directly influenced by diet,” he said. “This gets back to the way we used to eat.”

Sherman wanted to be “true to the foundation” of his cooking style in terms of ingredients, but he allows the use of modern equipment including a blender to puree the grapes used on the salad. He also used an electric stove to boil the water to make a tea for the students, but the cedar leaves he used were found growing outside around the school. Zach Miller, a student from Bozeman, took a sip and shared his reaction. 

“I think what makes it good is how well the cedar and the maple (syrup) combine,” he said. “I was expecting it to taste piney, but it’s good.” 

After learning from Chef Sherman, the students went to work on their own dishes. They created many different traditional foods. St. Ignatius students made a bitterroot and huckleberry soup. Students from Bozeman made a quinoa and squash dish. Kicking Horse Job Corps students made roast buffalo and sweet potato soup. Ronan students made moose meatballs on wild rice, and the Missoula students made a custard with a raspberry topping. Students will soon be making many more dishes with the help of the lesson plans incorporating Indian Education for All and Family and Consumer Sciences classes. 

“This unit will be available for teachers across our state, and much of our high-quality material is used across not only the U.S. but internationally,” Pierce said. 


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